TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Iranian Question and the Czech Answer

The release of Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, from incarceration in Iran is an encouraging development. But the international community is still pondering what to do about Iran. Western leaders have not found a suitable means of responding to Iran’s nuclear program, support of insurgents in the Iraq war and Hezbollah in Lebanon. None of the alternatives now being publicly discussed seem promising. Either the West can use a military intervention to compel Iran to change its behavior or attempt to pressure Iran through diplomacy. But the West, and particularly the United States, appears to have little leverage with the current Iranian leadership—which has historically depended upon demonizing the West for legitimacy, while prohibiting internal dissent to guarantee stability. With the United States and NATO fully committed in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively, there is no military force capable of conquering and controlling Iran. Moreover, a military strike against Iran would prove that the hyperbolic rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was correct, and his many critics would likely rally around his leadership in order to protect their nation. It would be, in fact, the worst possible decision.

Perhaps there is a strategy that the West could pursue toward Iran, akin to one that worked well in undermining the totalitarian government of Czechoslovakia: the example of Charter 77. Charter 77 was a human rights group founded by a politically diverse group of Czech and Slovak dissidents who openly signed a petition insisting that the communist government live up to its own legal and international obligations to protect human rights. Charter members, such as Václav Havel—who later became president of the country—maintained that Charter 77 was not—at least not overtly—a political opposition that formally challenged communist one-party rule. Rather, the Chartists defined themselves as a human rights movement that by its very existence helped to create a parallel polis—and widen social space for authentic existence outside to and independent of the dictates of the state. Despite its apolitical principles, the government actively prosecuted Charter 77, some of whom were given long jail sentences. Yet Charter 77 persisted and never collapsed. In 1989, when fortuitous circumstances allowed communism to unravel in Czechoslovakia, Charter 77, reborn as Civic Forum, became the nexus of an opposition, and later formed the first non-communist government, committed to establishing democratic institutions—including the rule of law, an independent judiciary, private ownership, and free and independent media. Thus the “parallel polis” of the communist era was to serve as a model for a functioning civil society in a healthy and consolidated democracy.

Could such a model of supporting a human rights opposition work in Iran? To fully answer that question we must consider what happened in Iraq, where no legitimate opposition was capable of taking the reigns of government when Saddam Hussein was overthrown. Evidently, U.S. policy makers expected that the prospect of “free and fair” elections would produce legitimate and capable rulers. But thirty years of ruthless dictatorship and an American intervention strategy based on a misguided belief that average Iraqis would see occupiers as liberators, robbed Iraqis of a legitimate home-grown opposition movement or nascent civil society. Amidst the violence of insurgency and counter-insurgency, social trust defaulted to tribal identity or sect. Only in Kurdistan, where an opposition leadership was able to develop under the protection of a U.N. mandate and American airpower, have civil institutions been established.

Prospects for supporting a human rights opposition are much more promising in Iran than they were in Iraq, or, for that matter, in communist Czechoslovakia. Iran is far from a totalitarian government. Although political opposition is limited, it is not outlawed. The media cannot directly attack government policy, but there is a great deal of general political discussion, and artistic and cultural activities are fairly autonomous. A tremendous amount of “Western” philosophy and political science has been translated and is distributed and widely read. Farsi is the most important language in the blogosphere (after English and Mandarin). There is already an incipient parallel polis.

The Iranians, like the Czechs after the Warsaw Pact army crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, have grown skeptical and even hostile to revolutionary slogans and ideologically based policies. The Czechs had tried to moderate communism’s excesses and build “socialism with a human face,” but had been thwarted by closed-minded ideological elites. The Iranians, too, voted to restrain Islamic fundamentalism by electing Mohammad Khatami President in 1997 and again in 2001. But fundamentalist clerics, fearing that Khatami’s reforms would lead to the downfall of the religiously based state, rigged the next series of elections so that only its candidates could win.

While such high-handed actions have preserved the Islamic state, they have turned public opinion sharply against Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, Iran is now the Islamic country where religious fundamentalism is the least popular, a fact borne out by the pro-American demonstrations in the streets of Tehran after 9/11. There’s a clear sense of “. . . been there, done that.” As Fariborz Mokhtari, a scholar at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, has written: “The Iranian street is predominantly pro-American while the Iranian government is anti-American. That’s the opposite in the Arab world.” The old rhetoric of revolution has been largely discredited. Persecuted writers and intellectuals, such as Akbar Ganji or Ramin Jahanbegloo, are creating a new discourse—much like Václav Havel did in Czechoslovakia—which emphasizes peaceful change, the denunciation of violence, responsibility as a moral choice, and adherence to human rights.

The Iranians, like the Czechs, have a rich and ancient cultural heritage, giving them a perspective from which the simple-minded slogans of religious fanatics seem, well, simple and fanatical. Iran can trace its cultural heritage back to the magnificent empires of Persia. Much of the Islamic art, literature, and philosophy were created by people living in Persia. Some of the greatest thinkers of the medieval period—Avicenna, al-Farabi, and Al-Ghazali—were Persian. Iranian pride makes them wary of pan-Islamic movements that would inevitably have Arab Muslims as leaders.

The Iranians, like the Czechs, have an active and intensely interested émigré community that opposes much of what the government is doing. Czechs living outside of Czechoslovakia were the conduit through which news and support from the West filtered into the hands of Charter 77 and word of government repression of dissidents reached the West. The global Iranian diaspora is large and prosperous, yet fractious and atomized. However, it can play a critical role in sustaining and expanding a parallel polis that, with the assistance of the Internet, knows no boundaries in communication or freedom of expression.

The Iranian opposition is badly fragmented, the middle class often disillusioned, and the opposition largely disenchanted. But the same was true of the Czech opposition in the 1970s and 80s, during what is called “the era of normalization.” What the Czechs learned—the true lesson of Charter 77—is that unity of purpose is the only effective means of resisting the oppression of an overbearing state. The most pressing task is to establish and consolidate an arena in which all political positions can be heard; in such a situation, political differences can be worked out peacefully following the rule of law. If the various groups within Iran find the strength to build upon their similarities and submerge their differences, their model might serve to unite the ever-squabbling émigré groups so that they can serve as an effective conduit of support, as the Czech émigrés did.

There are, of course, other significant differences between Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 80s and present-day Iran. First, America’s reputation in the region is so low that any public or financial support put forward by the State Department would quickly discredit rather than assist opposition groups. Second, the oil economy stifles reform, and an increasingly corrupt and parasitic elite depends upon the status quo to maintain their position of economic privilege (in some ways not unlike the communist nomenklatura).

Charter 77 could count on the support of its close geographic neighbors. It was Dutch diplomat Max van der Stoel’s early involvement with the Chartists that brought them to world attention, and many dissident émigrés lived in nearby Germany or Austria. Iran has no close neighbors who can maintain contacts with human rights groups. Moreover, after 1989, the Czechs were eager to enter Western alliances and adopt Western principles largely as a negative response to the Soviet Union’s interference in their lives. Iranians are not threatened by a hegemonic power, and the complex array of political groups within Iran is unlikely to replace the current regime with one that is thoroughly pro-Western.

Finally, Iranians authorities seem to understand that a dedicated human rights group is a genuine threat to the regime. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington was arrested on December 30, 2006, by Iranian authorities and accused of attempting to overthrow the Islamic state. Esfandiari, a scholar and a dual citizen of Iran and the United States, is the wife of noted Iranian dissident Shaul Bakhash. Iranian security forces have reputedly studied the earlier tactics of dissent in Central and Eastern Europe in order to avoid the fate of the communists. Iranian human rights groups could use Charter 77 as an inspiration, but not as a blueprint. They would have to adapt their tactics to take into account the “opposition research” their security forces have undertaken.

President Bush has stated that he hoped to build a prosperous, secure, free, and democratic Iraq. But such societies do not pop up full grown on election day. People must become accustomed to governing themselves and be willing to treat their fellow citizens—even those with whom they disagree—with respect. Human rights and tolerance cannot be implanted from above; they must be cultivated locally, and over time a fertile soil is developed. It is a painstaking and risky business. To paraphrase Havel, freedom is worth very little without responsibility.

Although diplomatic engagement should be pursued for its own limited yet important ends, we cannot expect the revolutionary government of Iran to pursue instant moderation. Like missiles stationed in Europe during the Cold War, a strong military presence in the Gulf may be necessary to back up our soft power claims. Although Western money and aid cannot “buy” democracy in Iran, spending money to develop centers for Iranian Studies in Western Universities and fostering cultural exchanges would be a good start. After all, the Fulbright program and cultural exchanges probably did as much to undermine the Soviet system—certainly its legitimacy—as the nuclear arms race.

However, the most important strategy is one that we cannot directly pursue, only applaud. If we expect any Iranian government to become more moderate, Iranians need to foster an alternative leadership themselves. In the end, it may be our only real and their best option.

Barbara J. Falk is Head of the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College, Toronto, and Associate Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. James F. Pontuso is Charles Patterson Professor and Chair of the Department of Government & Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College, in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia. Both recently attended a conference held in Prague, Czech Republic, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of Charter 77.

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